An object example of how a film can be entertaining and even exhilarating without being particularly good, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has the driving energy of a stadium anthem and the fizzy meaninglessness of a bubblegum pop song.
As a biopic of flamboyantly theatrical gay frontman Freddie Mercury, the movie frequently falls short, but it does provide interesting origin stories for many of the hits created by Mercury’s band Queen. Wisely, the movie wraps everything up with a rousing recreation of Queen stealing the show at 1985’s Live Aid, providing the equivalent of a band making you forget a mediocre set by performing a dazzling encore. The end of “Bohemian Rhapsody” marks the first (and no doubt last) time that I was brought to tears by “Radio Gaga.”
Very much an “authorized” biopic — band members Brian May and Roger Taylor are credited as “Executive Music Producers” — the film is a rather rote road-to-stardom tale: In 1970, a Heathrow baggage handler named Freddie Bulsara (Rami Malek) meets dental student Roger (Ben Hardy, “Only the Brave”) and astrophysics student Brian (Gwilym Lee, “Midsomer Murders”) and informs them that they need to make him their lead singer. Add bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation), and Queen is born.
The group quickly gets label attention, due mainly to the vocal chops and stage presence of their lead singer, who has redubbed himself “Freddie Mercury,” much to the chagrin of his Parsi parents. Queen battles with EMI over the “A Night at the Opera” album, particularly over “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which gives the eponymous film one of its most rapturous segments, as the band pieces together this complicated, elaborate, genre-defying pop single. (The casting of Mike Myers as BMI exec Ray Foster is amusing, given the connection between the song and “Wayne’s World,” but the movie overplays its hand by having Foster say that kids in cars will never bang their heads to the song.)
In his personal life, we see Freddie fall for Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, “Sing Street”), to whom he would propose, compose love songs for, and repeatedly refer to as the love of his life. But when Queen goes on the road, Freddie enjoys a series of quick and anonymous liaisons with men. Upon his return, she confronts him about the cracks in their marriage; “I think I’m bisexual,” he finally confesses, which Mary shuts down with a firm: “Freddie. You’re gay.”
There was concern in some quarters that the film would tamp down Mercury’s homosexuality, and to its credit, it’s right there on screen from the get-go. (Moments before he catches Mary’s eye for the first time, he cruises a handsome young man.) And for a movie that literally opens with an HIV-positive Mercury coughing — letting us know early that subtlety will not be on the menu — the film does handle its protagonist’s issues with AIDS-related complication respectfully, if fleetingly.
It’s worth noting, however, that “Bohemian Rhapsody” also goes out of its way to create a hissable gay villain: manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech, “Downton Abbey”), presented here as an old-school Devious Queen, all but twirls his ’70s-clone mustache as he drives a wedge between Freddie and the band, leading to an unsuccessful solo career and a schism that will have to be healed in time for Live Aid, even though most biographical accounts of Queen seem to suggest that this parting and reuniting is pure fiction. (Mercury’s first solo album under his own name didn’t come out until 1985, the year that Live Aid took place.)
The film offers interesting glimpses into how hits like “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” came to be, while leaving out other moments that fans might want to see, from triumphs (“Flash Gordon,” recording “Under Pressure” with David Bowie, opera-lover Mercury’s duet with legendary diva Monserrat Caballé) to debacles (“Body Language”). Screenwriter Anthony McCarten is no stranger to biopic contrivance (he previously wrote “Darkest Hour” and “The Theory of Everything”), but he outdoes himself in the third act of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in which disparate emotional arcs in Freddie’s life are all resolved en route to Wembley for Live Aid. Here’s hoping that chauffeur got a hefty tip for all that dramatic reconciliation.
But admittedly, that Live Aid sequence so thrillingly captures what is considered both a high point in live rock performance and a historical moment in Queen’s career that it justifies making and seeing the movie. Malek doesn’t always nail the off-stage Mercury — he struggles with the dental prosthetic he’s been given to match the singer’s legendary overbite, as though it had been thrust into his mouth for the first time seconds before cameras were rolling — but with a microphone in his hand and lip-synching to Mercury’s vocals, Malek captures the electricity of a rock god at the height of his powers. It’s a moment where everything the movie has to offer and everyone who worked on it — particularly cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (“Drive”) and editor John Ottman (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”) — are firing on all cylinders.
As an inducement to dig into the Queen back catalog, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an unqualified success. But when it tries to be a genuine biopic of a groundbreaking band and its singular lead singer, it’s more like a little silhouette-o of a man.